Larry Steven McQuilliams had a map of downtown Austin with X’s on 34 buildings and had two calendars hanging on the walls of his Hollow Creek Drive apartment. Every day leading to Nov. 27, 2014, had been crossed out.
He laid out an outfit on his bed with a note that read “funeral clothes” before leaving his home that evening. Wearing a gray camouflage shirt, dark pants and brown boots, McQuilliams walked to his neighbor’s door and left a bag of cat food with a two-page note taped to it.
“Just tell the FBI that you knew nothing about my plans because no one outside of the Priesthood does,” the note said.
Exactly one year ago, McQuilliams, 49, went on a shooting spree that marked what authorities consider the second terrorist attack in Austin’s history, following the 2010 suicide plane crash into some local offices of the Internal Revenue Service. The incident, top police officials now say, has become further evidence of the evolving public safety challenges of a rapidly growing city.
With unprecedented detail, more than 100 records obtained by the American-Statesman in the past year describe the events that took place in the early morning of Nov. 28, 2014, when McQuilliams set out on a rampage that damaged four downtown buildings but was cut short when a police sergeant, acting to protect his subordinates, killed him with a single improbable shot.
McQuilliams moved back to Austin in 2013 looking for a fresh start.
Twenty-two years before the Black Friday shooting, McQuilliams tried to rob an armored car at a Southwest Austin bank. He didn’t take any money: He sprayed tear gas in the face of a security officer but fled after the officer shot him in the leg. Officers found McQuilliams sitting wounded on a nearby sidewalk shortly after.
McQuilliams was convicted in federal court for interference with commerce by robbery in 1993. He spent the next seven years at a federal correctional facility in Texarkana until he was released in 2000, records show.
Details about McQuilliams’ life right after prison are few. He lived with his parents in Wichita, Kan., about three years ago. He loved Renaissance fairs and volunteered at a dance production company, setting up tents and accompanying the dancers to fairs. He moved back to Austin after being fired from a wastewater company, according to police documents and interviews.
McQuilliams applied for many jobs when he arrived, but finding one as a convicted felon wasn’t easy. The only place that didn’t turn him down was a car wash about 2 miles from his apartment.
He was always on time there and never had a problem with his colleagues, but, after about six months, “he just stated he was quitting to go floating in the river,” his manager told police. In the spring of 2014, neighbors would often see the blond, burly man walking toward nearby Barton Springs carrying a large black inner tube.
Once again unemployed, McQuilliams was unable to support himself and lived off money his parents would send him, a police report said.
McQuilliams’ neighbors and co-workers remembered him as a man who was anti-government and angry “at the whole system,” a police report said. He was plagued not only by financial problems but also by recurring suicidal thoughts. After his arrest in 1992, he told police he acted as he had because it was between robbing a bank and killing himself.
In the note he left for his neighbor before the downtown shooting, McQuilliams wrote that, since he was 14, he felt he was in a “slow-motion suicide.”
“I cannot live this empty life anymore and watch the world go to hell,” he wrote.
Being the supervisor of Austin police’s mounted patrol is a lot like being a parent, according to Sgt. Adam Johnson.
Even though most of the officers in his unit are older than him, the members of the small group are “needy like children and you’re proud of them like your children,” he said, chuckling in a recent interview with the Statesman.
Johnson, 40, loves his unit and his job, a perfect fit for someone who had grown up riding horses on a ranch and practiced shooting with a .22-caliber rifle from his back porch.
On Thanksgiving night last year, the 16-year Austin police veteran began work at 6 p.m. and shared dinner with the other members of the mounted patrol at the Threadgill’s restaurant just south of downtown.
The group, charged with watching over the rowdy crowds that gather on Sixth Street every weekend, expected a busy night. The Longhorns were playing their annual Thanksgiving football game, and police anticipated high revelry if the home team pulled off an upset of highly ranked Texas Christian University.
The Longhorns didn’t oblige, so as the bars closed at 2 a.m., the streets cleared out faster than usual. By 2:20 a.m., almost all the revelers had left. Atop his horse, Knucklehead, Johnson led the mounted patrol back to the horse trailers outside the police garage on Eighth Street.
It was 2:25 a.m. when Johnson heard the police radio mention reports of shots fired about a mile away.
The first call was at 2:18 a.m., when the Austin Fire Department responded to a fire at the Mexican Consulate near Baylor and West Fifth streets. One minute later, 911 calls began flowing in with reports of automatic gunfire at the same location. Witnesses told police they saw a white vehicle speeding away.
McQuilliams had rented a white Toyota Highlander to attack almost three dozen downtown buildings that included banks, government facilities and churches. He set out that night armed with a Bulgarian knockoff of an AK-47 rifle, a .40-caliber handgun, a .22-caliber rifle, a double-edged combat knife and hundreds of bullets. He also brought a gas mask and a book on the history of the Phineas Priesthood, a racist, anti-Semitic Christian movement that originated in the Pacific Northwest.
From the consulate, McQuilliams headed east towards the federal courthouse at 501 W. Fifth St. and, at 2:24 a.m., an officer two blocks away heard rapid bangs of gunfire as McQuilliams shot several rounds at the building. As the officer approached the area, two employees of the nearby Kung Fu Saloon told him they had seen McQuilliams firing at the BB&T Bank, just a block away from the courthouse, before he drove off.
More than a dozen police officers had been diverted to respond to the shooting by the time McQuilliams headed farther east to the next target on his map: Austin’s police headquarters.
Even though they were close, Johnson and the mounted patrol didn’t respond to the shooting; it was outside of their sector and police dispatchers hadn’t assigned them to assist.
But at 2:31 a.m., the team had just loosened some of the horses’ saddle girths and taken off their hoof boots when gunfire rang out from less than a block away. The muzzle flashes made it clear someone was firing an automatic rifle at the Police Department’s headquarters.
The gunshots spooked the horses, and Johnson tightened his grip on Knucklehead’s reins. A fellow mounted patrol officer handed Johnson the reins of his horse and began approaching the shooter. As the bullets smashed into police headquarters, Johnson thought of those inside the building: One of his best friends, a night-shift detective sergeant, was working that night. Johnson could only imagine where those bullets were landing.
Johnson didn’t know how to react. He recalled an incident from more than a decade ago when a horse got loose from an officer and got on Interstate 35. He couldn’t drop the reins and engage with the shooter; keeping control of the animals was his first priority.
Then the shooter’s gunfire focused on a new target: the mounted patrol.
Four bullets hit the patrol car where an officer was taking cover. Another bullet hit a concrete wall, and its shrapnel hit an officer’s right cheek.
The shooter walked slowly and didn’t appear agitated. He was calm, methodically firing off 30-round bursts, stopping to reload and opening fire again.
An officer close to Johnson dove to the ground, finding cover behind a waist-high wall. Johnson remembers the terror in her face.
“These officers that are on my shift, any shift I’ve ever had … you look at them like they are your kids,” Johnson would later tell investigators during a police interview. “When she looked at me like that, it might as well be one of my kids looking at me like that.”
Johnson turned protective. Still holding on tightly to the horses’ reins with his left hand, he pressed his chest against one of the garage’s concrete pillars and drew his weapon, the Police Department’s standard-issue Smith & Wesson M&P 40.
Three cars were between him and the shooter, and a few fellow officers were about to cross his line of fire. He was more than a football field away and could only see the shooter’s silhouette from the waist up.
“I knew I was a long way away,” Johnson said. “At the moment, I didn’t try to estimate the distance, but I knew when I put my front sight and started looking at my front sight … that I had a clear shot.”
Johnson pointed his handgun at the dark figure. It had only been a brief pause since the last rapid-fire burst.
“I just took a deep breath and just squeezed,” he said.
That was the only shot police fired that night.
Officers heard a radio call of a “man down.” The shooter lay dead in the middle of Eighth Street with a rifle next to him. Johnson’s shot had pierced his heart through the back.
The shooting ended at 2:32 a.m. Only one minute had transpired since McQuilliams started firing at the police building.
One year later
On a recent day this month, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo peered out the windows of his corner office on the top floor of police headquarters. Outside, crews were finally replacing the numerous windows McQuilliams had damaged during the shooting spree a year ago.
“Bureaucracy,” the chief said.
Most of the bullet holes have been plugged or fixed, but some pock marks remain in the police headquarters’ exterior brick walls, a reminder of the brief chaos that erupted in downtown Austin at the front steps of the agency tasked with keeping the peace.
Even in the face of evidence that showed McQuilliams had long thought about and even attempted suicide — according to an autopsy report, McQuilliams had written “Let me die” on his chest with black ink — Acevedo still dismisses any notion that he had committed “suicide by cop.”
Instead, in the days after the shooting, Acevedo opted to describe him as a “lone-wolf terrorist” and pointed to McQuilliams’ identification with the Phineas Priesthood. The FBI’s investigation into the shooting determined McQuilliams acted alone with no help in planning or executing the attack, FBI agent Michelle Lee said.
“He had hate in his heart,” Acevedo said at the time.
The Nov. 28, 2014, incident was just one in a series of events — the suicide plane crash into a local IRS office in 2010, the fatal South by Southwest crash in 2014 and the shooting at the Omni Hotel in July — that underscore how Austin has left behind its “sleepy college town” days, Acevedo said.
Austin “is a metropolitan, world-class city and with that comes all the challenges of being a huge metro,” he said. “It seems a year doesn’t go by that we don’t have significant challenges in our city.”
Some things have changed for Johnson as well.
“Everywhere I go now, I have to be hypervigilant about what’s going on around me,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to ever be caught by surprise by anything.”
Johnson is still a sergeant with the mounted patrol and returned to duty after a brief stint of administrative leave following the shooting, as per department regulations. Last summer, a grand jury declined to indict him in McQuilliams’ death.
The bizarre nature of the incident and his incredible gunshot come up nearly every day. According to a ballistics investigation, the .40-caliber bullet fired from Johnson’s gun traveled 314 feet in less than a second. The bullet nicked the driver’s door frame of McQuilliams’ vehicle and continued tumbling sideways 5 more feet before it hit McQuilliams.
Acevedo called it the “shot heard around the world,” a sentiment echoed by gun publications and the national press with headlines like “This Austin cop is why you shouldn’t mess with Texas.”
Johnson accepted accolades reluctantly, preferring to shine the spotlight on his fellow officers responding that night, noting that they were the ones running towards the gunfire. He would rather not retell the story of the shooting. It was just one minute of his life, and it ended with him taking a life.
“I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a supervisor with 13 employees that work for me, and I have my duties,” he said. “Life goes on.”
Getting the story
Reporters Philip Jankowski and Nicole Chavez are members of the Statesman breaking news team, covering police, fire and EMS agencies in Central Texas. For this story, they conducted several interviews, submitted a series of open records requests and reviewed hundreds of pages of sworn affidavits, Austin Police Department internal documents, evidence photos and surveillance videos to reconstruct the events surrounding the Nov. 28, 2014, downtown shooting.